A New “Anti-Biography” of Composer Franz Schubert Undoes 150 Years of Distortion and Trivialization

UB musicologist challenges portrayals of classical music's enigmatic genius

Release Date: November 8, 2000 This content is archived.


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A biography of 19th-century composer Franz Schubert authored by UB musicologist Christopher Gibbs, seen here at Schubert's gravesite in Vienna, has received critical acclaim.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For nearly two centuries, the life and character of Franz Schubert, one of the most brilliant, accomplished and popular of the European classical composers, have been variously sketched in treacle and brimstone by one biographer after another.

The Schubert that emerged is a bundle of contradictions. This short, squat, bespeckled genius of melody is variously reported to have been charming, depressive, jolly, morbid, hard-working, dissolute, lonely, surrounded by friends, heterosexual, homosexual, asexual -- in short, history seems to have manufactured a Franz Schubert for every taste.

In a critically acclaimed new biography of the composer, Christopher Gibbs, assistant professor of music at the University at Buffalo and a Schubert scholar of international reputation, presents a far more balanced and empathetic portrait of the man and his career than has been previously available.

The book is "The Life of Schubert" (Cambridge University Press, 2000), a concise, historically precise work written in an elegant, highly readable style. It carefully culls two centuries of anecdote and allegation to arrive at what a critic for The New York Times has called "an even-handed effort that deals in a straightforward manner with distortions on both sides of the biographical aisle."

Because the prevailing postmortem persona of Schubert is a sentimental and romantic little "Prince of Song," Gibbs says his "is a darker, more emotionally troubling portrait of the composer than many expected or want.

"Issues surrounding Schubert's life have been difficult to resolve," Gibbs explains, "because there is little reliable historical documentation related to his life and to the physical and psychological circumstances in which he worked."

Unlike some other great composers -- Beethoven, Brahms -- Schubert died young, at age 31, in 1828, before he had much of an audience outside Biedermeier Vienna.

At the time of his death, he was principally known for having set hundreds of Germany's most beautiful and brilliant poems to music, thereby raising the German song or lied to an artistic level that never has been surpassed.

Many of Schubert's finest works, unpublished and never performed, languished in trunks and cupboards, for years after his death, unknown even to family and friends.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Schubert seldom traveled and left behind few letters, a few diary pages, no essays or critical writings, compounding the evidentiary difficulty. As a result, popular conceptions of Schubert the man and composer were constructed long after his death from scattered recollections by friends who denied or discounted many of his less attractive qualities.

"Upon the posthumous discovery of his mature symphonies and sonatas, operas, masses -- an astonishing output," Gibbs says Schubert's reputation as a simple song Meister was revised as if by proclamation.

"It was embellished -- without supporting evidence -- into that of an underappreciated 'heaven-sent' classical genius whose hundreds of compositions poured forth 'naturally,' which is to say, without effort," Gibbs says, adding that those who longed to know more about him came to project more and more of their own assumptions onto the composer, "constructing" a Schubert who had little in common with the original.

An example of this process, Gibbs explains, was the extraordinary influence of "Das Dreimäderlhaus" a 1916 Viennese operetta, drawn from popular conceptions of the composer's life and character that had been depicted in "Schwammerl," a best-selling 1912 novel about Schubert.

"Both novel and musical promoted the popular, but distorted, perception of Schubert as a simple, charmingly wistful figure who, despite stunning musical gifts, lived out his short, rather dull, life in the Austrian provinces," Gibbs says. "The operetta was translated into many languages, frequently produced and became the basis for several popular films.

"This romanticized Schubert lived on in the public imagination through the 1940s," Gibbs says, "although musicians and scholars long have known that there was much more to him than the romantic version allowed.

"Revisionist examinations were long overdue by then and we now have speculations about Schubert's excesses, neuroses and possible homosexuality.

"They no doubt contain a good deal more truth than the past sentimental images," Gibbs writes, "still, some of these claims that threaten to become a new orthodoxy rest on very scanty historical evidence."

"It was a difficult task then, to weed through the various allegations and 'first-hand' accounts of his life and ascertain what information can be trusted and what assumptions can be drawn from often inaccurate material," Gibbs says.

Among the conclusions he has drawn is that Schubert was not critically unknown or unheralded in his lifetime. Indeed, much of the book is devoted to charting the course of Schubert's professional career as he sought ways to fame in Beethoven's Vienna. Schubert's work was publicly acknowledged, even if mostly in and around Vienna and as his more mature work became known, he certainly would have been more famous, popular and critically acclaimed, a fact he may have sensed as the end of his life drew near.

Gibbs also maintains that allegations that music simply "poured unbidden" from the composer's pen gives short shrift to Schubert's intellect and diligence.

"Although his musical gifts were obvious early in life," Gibbs says, "the evidence indicates that he didn't rely on intuitive musicianship alone, but worked hard to hone his compositional skills in part by studying the work of other composers, notably Beethoven, whom he deeply admired."

Good Schubert or bad Schubert? He was not the innocent some of his ardent fans want him to be, but he doesn't stack up as the prince of darkness either.

"Evidence of Schubert's occasional heavy drinking comes from reliable contemporary sources and that was later amplified (or defensively dismissed) in friends' memoirs," Gibbs claims.

He maintains that the composer's bright, engaging side seems to have coexisted with a morbid, depressive aspect, a deep spiritual sense (although not religious orthodoxy) and profound loneliness coupled with a craving for intimacy. These contradictions, Gibbs says, are reflected in his music, one of the things that makes it so moving.

"It is intriguing to see how some in his circle felt that Schubert had a 'dual nature,' possessed 'a black-winged demon of sorrow and melancholy,' was a 'hedonist' who indulged in 'sensual living,'" Gibbs says.

"A recent biographer, Elizabeth Norman McKay, claims Schubert was mildly manic-depressive, but whether or not that was true," Gibbs says, "stark contrasts of mood are found in his most significant letters, which often juxtapose laments of 'misery' with buoyant talk of friends, musical life and composing."

While it has been suggested elsewhere that Schubert may have been homosexual, Gibbs finds little concrete evidence to support a claim, although he does not dismiss the possibility.

"It is true that Schubert's life is missing close and enduring relationships with women," Gibbs says, but he points out that he was ill with the primary symptoms of syphilis early in his 20s and the nature of his illness and his continued ill-health would have rendered him unacceptable for courtship and marriage.

"When not composing, he spent most of his time in the company of men, but that wasn't unusual among young men of his era," he says.

"Biographical allusions to his sensuality and hedonism -- including allegations of his involvement with prostitutes -- are tantalizing," Gibbs says, "but they lack specificity. The wildest claims to emerge in recent years, that Schubert was a pederast and that he smoked opium, simply cannot be supported by the historical evidence."

In the end, Schubert-lovers can be grateful to Gibbs for having teased out the tangled skeins from which the composer's complicated legends have been woven. Musicologists may never arrive at an agreed-upon, definitive Schubert, but Gibbs's portrait illuminates many faulty assumptions, and also the reasons for them.

Having edited "The Cambridge Companion to Schubert" (Cambridge, 1997) and served as musicological director of the acclaimed Schubertiade at New York City's 92nd Street Y, the 1997 Schubert Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1997 and the 2000 Bard Music Festival in 2000, the author knows whereof he speaks.

An active and award-winning critic, lecturer and program annotator, Gibbs's current project, a book on Beethoven and Schubert and their connections in and around death, gives him further depth as a critic and biographer of one of his favorite composers.

"We may never know any more about Schubert than we know now," he admits, "and we only can marvel at how Schubert and his music have generated so many interpretations and accommodated such a variety of appropriations over time.

"Instead of regretting that we know so little and therefore have invented so much," Gibbs suggests "we might rather celebrate the range and emotional depth that Schubert's art encompasses, the breadth of response and interpretation it evokes and that gives such diverse feelings of pain and pleasure."

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